“Passion and boundless curiosity”: James Robertson on Hugh Miller

jamesrobertsonScottish author and poet James Robertson has five acclaimed novels to his name – including The Testament of Gideon Mack and Joseph Knight – together with several short story and poetry collections. He has long been a supporter of The Friends of Hugh Miller charity, having first learned about the self-taught Scottish geologist when he was a child. He cites the work of Hugh Miller as having influenced some of his own writing, and is a keen supporter of the new Hugh Miller Writing Competition, run by the Scottish Geodiversity Forum in partnership with The Friends of Hugh Miller and other organisations across Scotland. The competition aims to encourage entrants to use Miller’s writing to inspire their own.

Lara Reid, freelance science writer and one of the judges for the Hugh Miller Writing Competition 2015-2016, spoke to Robertson about the role that Miller has played in his own life and work.

Even when I disagree with him, I find Miller’s passion and boundless curiosity very engaging,” says Robertson. “My family visited Cromarty while on holiday in Easter Ross when I was about ten years old. We went round the Hugh Miller house on that occasion, but I didn’t read anything by him until more than twenty years later, when I picked up a copy of My Schools and Schoolmasters in about 1992. That book is a terrific read, as is Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland.” Both of these titles impressed him so much that Robertson went on to edit new versions of the texts, published in 1993 and 1994 respectively.

The appeal of Miller’s writing, for Robertson at least, is “his way of telling a good story, whether it is a supernatural tale, a bit of autobiography or a description of how Scotland might have looked in the Ice Age.” Robertson also loves the fact that Miller does not restrict himself in terms of subject matter, nor hold back on his own opinions on topics ranging from social justice through to the latest theories in geology and the natural sciences. “His work is incredibly eclectic – there is no subject that he feels he cannot investigate or develop an opinion on – humane, humorous, rigorous and full of interest in human life and indeed all life, past and present, on Earth.”

Although Miller’s endless enthusiasm can perhaps prove a little wearing at times, Robertson would urge readers new to his writing to bear with him. “Sometimes he is rather long-winded and pedantic, but there are always flashes of insight and vivid imagination in the middle of otherwise quite dull passages. You need to take a little time to adjust to his pace and his long sentences; but if you have patience, the rewards are immense,” states Robertson.

Perhaps one of the key rewards in reading Miller is a chance to immerse oneself in many of the scientific and social debates of the Victorian era. Precisely because of Miller’s tenacity in broaching so many subjects, and of his beautiful turns of phrase and ways of describing the complexities of science and (human) nature using very visual, simple metaphors, the reader can gain a good grasp many of the concepts and scientific puzzles that were hotly debated at the time.

Inevitably, science has moved on in the last 200 years, but Miller’s historical contribution should not be undervalued,” says Robertson. “In particular, he was a great populariser of science: thousands attended his lectures and hundreds of thousands read his books. Perhaps today he is even more important as a social historian and as a folklorist: without him our understanding of Scottish and especially Highland life in the mid-19th century would be much poorer.” The fact that Hugh Miller was also caught up in arguments about the relationship between science and religion, and debates about evolution and creationism, makes him somebody we should pay attention to in our own time when these disputes still rage, adds Robertson. For example, his essay ‘The Geology of the Anti-Geologists’, a highly entertaining demolition of the silliness of a literal interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis, which nevertheless does not oblige Miller to compromise his own Christian faith, is still highly relevant.

The new Hugh Miller Writing Competition asks that entrants submit fiction, non-fiction or poetry inspired specifically by the geological and landscape writings of Miller. The hope is that the competition will raise awareness of Miller as a tour-de-force in Scottish geology at the time he was writing, as well as creating a whole new generation of written work inspired by Miller and Scotland’s landscapes. The competition is open to all ages in two categories, under 16s, and 17 and over, and the closing date is 18th March 2016.

I asked Robertson if Miller’s influence can be found in his own work, and what advice he would have for budding writers keen to enter the Hugh Miller Writing Competition this year. “I am quite sure that some of Miller’s turns of phrase have worked their way into my own writing, and I have certainly composed at least one poem as a result of reading Hugh Miller,” says Robertson. “I also owe a large debt to Miller for the scenes in The Testament of Gideon Mack when Gideon falls into the ‘Black Jaws’ of the Keldo Water and meets the Devil in an underground cave. That, and the ‘legend of the Black Jaws’ in the same novel, are derived from Miller’s account of the story of the Lady of Balconie in Scenes and Legends, ch. XI, pp164-9 (B&W Publishing, Edinburgh, 1994), where the said lady is found bound forever in the depths of the great Black Rock gorge of the Auldgrande (Allt Graad) river at Evanton in Easter Ross. None of the related episodes in my novel would be there if it wasn’t for Hugh Miller.”

As for any writers keen to enter the competition, Robertson’s main piece of advice is that “when you have finished whatever you are writing, make sure you read it aloud to yourself. Listen to the rhythms and sounds of your writing, and adjust it to make it sound as good as possible out loud. I am sure Miller must have done that. It was one reason why he wasn’t just a great writer but a great public speaker too. That will almost always make it read better off the page.”

Lara Reid would like to thank James Robertson for taking the time to speak to her about Hugh Miller, and for his encouragement and support in getting the Hugh Miller Writing Competition up and running this year.